The charge, when it was read out, consisted of the two words that Michael Jackson's former physician, Dr Conrad Murray, and his team of headline-prone lawyers never wanted to hear: involuntary manslaughter.
In front of ashen-faced members of the singer's family, prosecutors revealed that they believe the Grenada-born Doctor "did unlawfully, and without malice, kill Michael Joseph Jackson" by acting "without due caution and circumspection" in the run up to his fatal cardiac arrest last June. The announcement yesterday lunchtime brought two-dozen satellite vans, several hundred reporters and a smattering of placard-wielding fans to the Superior Court near Los Angeles airport – and had America's rolling news networks licking their lips in anticipation of yet another sensational celebrity trial.
Dr Murray, who was with Jackson at his rented house in Holmby Hills on the night before his death, turned up in a light grey suit and red tie to shouts of "murderer" from some fans. He remained silent throughout the hearing, except to say "yes" in a soft voice when asked if he understood the charge against him.
After pleading not guilty, Dr Murray was released on $75,000 (£48,000) bail. That figure is three times the standard amount for such cases, but significantly less than the $300,000 that prosecutors were seeking. Judge Keith L Schwartz has also confiscated Dr Murray's passport to prevent him fleeing.
The doctor faces up to four years in prison if found guilty, but can draw at least a crumb of comfort that he will not face the more serious charge of second degree murder, which had been backed by the late singer's family. He is next due to appear in court on 5 April and last night his lawyer said he planned to return to his medical practices in Houston and Las Vegas while he awaits trial, although state officials said they plan ned to ask the court to suspend his medical license while he is out on bail.
Several members of the Jackson clan, including his mother Kathryn, father Joe, brothers Jermaine, Randy and Tito, and sister LaToya were at the courthouse. "Looking for justice," was all Joe Jackson said as he arrived. Dr Murray's attorney, Ed Chernoff, for his part promised to: "fight like hell".
Prosecutors did not reveal details of their case but when it eventually reaches trial Dr Murray is likely to be accused of negligently giving his client a dangerous cocktail of prescription drugs in the hours before he died. The coroner's report into Jackson's death, which was also made public on the internet yesterday, suggests that Dr Murray will be asked to explain why his 50-year-old patient was found to have propofol, valium, lorazepam and midazolam in his body.
All of the drugs are dangerous in large quantities and should never normally be mixed. The report says that 13 other drugs were found at the scene of Jackson's death, along with oxygen tanks, needles, catheters, and a closed bottle of urine.
An autopsy established that Jackson's hair was "sparse" and "connected to a wig", and concluded that propofol was most likely to have killed the star. It is a powerful sedative also known as "milk of amnesia" and should only normally be administered in a medical setting, since it depresses breathing and heart rate while also lowering blood pressure.
Dr Murray injected Jackson with the drug in his bedroom, rather than a hospital. As part of his bail, Judge Schwartz has now banned him from providing sedatives to any remaining clients.
During a seven-month investigation into Jackson's death, police interviewed Murray on several occasions. The doctor maintains that his client demanded the drugs to combat insomnia, which had been blighting his attempt to rehearse for an unlikely series of lucrative comeback concerts at the O2 in London.
Prosecutors are likely to claim that Dr Murray, who had been having financial problems, agreed to act as an "enabler" to Jackson, who was addicted to prescription drugs. The singer's concert promoters were paying him $90,000 (£58,000) a month to act as the star's personal physician.Reuse content